Random Thoughts on Freelancing

June 24th, 2015 by Potato

This has been a pretty good year for me for freelancing: I’ve had a fair number of clients on the investor education business side, as well as some editing jobs, including editing a novel-length fiction for another author — my first work of fiction (I normally work in non-fiction/science/health care/personal finance). I’ve had on my to-do list for a while to revamp my various websites because I’m doing just an absolutely atrocious job of advertising myself1, when I realized that I’m busy enough and there is no need for that — I have almost as much work as I can handle just coming in from my terrible advertising and excellent word-of-mouth. This is my second-best year ever for freelancing, and though the year is only half over I’m on track to quadruple the average of the last three years. The only better year involved a single intensive project versus a bunch of smaller jobs.

But despite doing fairly well on a few different freelance projects, I am nowhere near the point where I would feel comfortable quitting my job and going full-time freelance. And I don’t think I will ever get to that point: I like having a steady job with benefits (and I like working in the not-for-profit sector even if I could make more freelancing or in for-profit). And with that realization in mind, I think it’s maybe time to slow down — another big reason I keep trying to not get myself worked up to creating a course for beginners to investing/planning/etc.

I’ve also had freelancing on my mind because I’ve been stuck trying to complete an interview for a really great person who does not deserve to have me sitting on her deadline for the past few months. The question that’s been holding up the works is fairly simple: “What advice would you give PhD students today [about preparing for non-academic jobs]?” And I wrote a pretty decent few paragraphs on expanding and honing your transferable skills by freelancing on stuff. And then I second-guessed that: how realistic is that advice, how good is it? Will risking burnout in grad school (or complications if they go over the typical 10-hour-per-week cap on external work) actually help grad students as advice? How repeatable would my freelancing experiences be? I mean, I think I’m pretty good at what I do, and I’m well-rounded so there are lots of things under that umbrella, which leads to a number of things I can do on a part-time basis. But would most grad students be able to devote so little time to rounding up business that it made part-time freelancing worthwhile?

This was kind of driven home for me by a few recent posts by Robb over at B&E, including this one on multiple income streams where he ends with this bit: “You’d be surprised how quickly you can accomplish your goals when you can earn an extra $1,000 or more per month.” Well yes, a ~20% raise for the average person would accomplish goals faster. But how realistic is $1k/mo in freelance income? IMHO, not at all. Look, my best year ever didn’t even hit half of that on average. Yes, I made a fair bit more than that in my busiest two months — but I could not have kept up that pace for a full year, I would have burned out — let alone being able to keep scaring up that kind of work.

He’s partly helped by not having the soul-destroying commute that I do: saving 10 hours a week could free up a lot of consulting time. He’s partly helped by his wife: add a working spouse (as is the case for many) and he’d have to do more housework and have less free time to work side projects. He also has a really steady 9-5 job, whereas I have trouble scheduling work far in advance because I don’t know when the shit will hit the fan (but then I get lieu days to freelance after it does). But he’s so far up in the stratosphere of freelance writing (where people come to him for jobs, and where he pulls in an average family’s full salary in blog income) that I’m afraid he may be losing perspective — most people are not in the position to make that level of side income2, and that’s assuming that they have marketable skills that are amenable to part-time side income in the first place.

A thousand dollars a month doesn’t sound too hard, on the surface: if you bill at $60/hr (but actually earn closer to $30/hr after under-bidding on projects and doing development work and fiddling with your website and Linkedin profile), then you only need to work about 17 billable hours each month. That’s like four hours a week; even after it ends up doubling with all the unpaid work that surrounds freelancing, you’re still only out one of your weekend days each week. Of course, $60/hr is for pretty specialized work, which is kind of hard to find and may require like graduate degrees or something. Freelance writing pays more like $0.50/word if you’re lucky, maybe $0.10/word if you’re not. No problem, you’re thinking, you might be able to hammer out 1,000 words in about two hours if you’re a fast writer. Two of those a month and you’d hit that $1k target with two weeks off to yourself. Of course, only people who are already famous can hammer out a 2-hour blog post and get paid $500 for it — most3 freelance writers and most assignments will require that you do research, and interview experts, and go back and forth with your editor to polish it, which can bring your hourly rate way down. Plus you’ll have to draft and send like 20 proposals to editors for each assignment you actually land, which is hours out of your life you don’t get paid for at all. A few sites peg basic copyediting at about $30/hr — but go to the self-publishing sites and you’ll see authors claim they don’t pay over $20/hr (along with ads from hungry part-time editors willing to low-ball).

So with business development, you’re probably talking 8-10 hours per week to hit that expectation if you have some marketable skills but aren’t a super-specialized professional. If you don’t have a portfolio or a lot of skills and are just grinding away at things like fiverr jobs or brainmass, you’re talking more like 20 hours per week, which I don’t think is something to advise most people to expect.

What, then, is a reasonable expectation of what working freelance can do for you? I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m way under my potential4,5. I believe that I’m well above the median in terms of freelancers who work full-time day jobs, at least in specialized skills if not in billable hours, which means most should not expect to break even the $500/mo point. But maybe my self-image is all wrong and the only reason I took issue with the B&E estimate is because I’m actually just unsuccessful. How much is a reasonable amount of work for the average person before burnout threatens? Again, I’ve personally prided myself on my stamina, but I lose a lot of time to other parts of my life — a young, single person with no commute could rock side income (but then is that typical/average?). Is ~10 hours/week sustainable if your commute is more reasonable? I don’t know what to suggest, which leads me back to part of why I’m stuck on that interview.

However, the main point may still apply: freelancing may be a good way to build transferable skills and improve your finances. Most Canadians struggle to save even a few thousand dollars per year, so making even $250/mo in a more realistic freelancing expectation could really beef up those retirement savings.

As for me? I think I’ll move updating my websites and profiles back down to the bottom of the to-do list.

1. I mean, I earned my American Medical Writers’ Association certificate two years ago and still haven’t gotten around to putting that fact up anywhere — in fact no where do I actually advertise that I do editing work, it’s all been thanks to word-of-mouth. And my CV/bio is just a disgrace.
2. And of course, Michael James was ahead of me again to that idea, as you can see in the comments section at B&E.
3. Look at me, talking like I’ve had any kind of success in this field at all (I haven’t), or talked to more than two people who have (I haven’t).
4. Well, I know that I am: I charge almost half of what many money coaches charge, which I justify by focusing on education and making my clients work for themselves — I do less for them, at the end of the day, so it ends up being what I consider exceptionally fair, which makes me feel good as a service provider.
5. Also, I know that I am: I spent a lot of time writing the book last year, and this year on pro bono work for the library as well as promoting the book and doing interviews — all time that I could have instead dedicated to making money by freelancing.

5 Responses to “Random Thoughts on Freelancing”

  1. Robb Engen Says:

    Hey John, I’m not sure if you’re just taking issue with the $1000/month comment or what, but this comes across as a pretty whiny rant. The point is, if you were in financially dire straits, you could easily find a way to double your best freelance earnings. You’re not in that position, so you don’t NEED to hustle that hard.

    Think of it this way: the average couple with no kids could rent out a spare room or basement to reach that extra income target. But they won’t, because having a stranger in your house is weird and uncomfortable. One or both of them could take a part-time job or use a marketable skill to earn extra money on the side. But they don’t want to because they’d rather watch TV and look at Facebook.

    My advice to millennials (not to the financially secure and about to retire Michael James) is to hustle. “Do what you love” is a great mantra, but do it on the side. Anecdotally, I know a few people who do it, and plenty who could, but choose not to.

    You make a lot of assumptions about me and my situation. I’m actually offended (well, offended enough to make this comment). I’m not in the upper-stratosphere of writers – not even close! I write a lot and do a decent job promoting. I’d say my biggest strength when it comes to my side business is finding what the next thing is going to be.

    When the typical online ad revenue streams dried up, I looked for other ways to increase my side income. I noticed plenty of brands trying to start a blog or newsletter, and most of the time they had no content strategy whatsoever. So I’d reach out to a few of them and offer to write articles at $250/post. I took a targeted sales approach and it paid off. Incidentally, many of those relationships turned into advertisers on B&E or RCC.

    After the Toronto Star column ended, I was out $8k to $10k per year. Enter the fee-only planning business, which filled that void and to be honest takes less time than writing, finding sources, and going back and forth with an editor (as you described above).

    Yes, I benefit from a short commute and a steady 9-5 job. But did you know that I work every Friday/Saturday night from September to December, and from January to March?

    Yes, I’m blessed to have a stay-at-home spouse. But that does not limit the time I spend with my family and looking after my share of the household duties. Did you know that my wife has MS? I can’t imagine how tired she gets chasing after two young kids every day while keeping the house in order, groceries stocked, and family on schedule. I drove my daughter to and from Kindergarten most days. I do whatever I can to help ease that burden at home.

    Finally, I’m also working on plenty of non-income generating activity on the side, such as completing the coursework required to earn my CFP designation, and doing pro-bono financial planning.

    Hey, we also love binge-watching shows on Netflix and do so on a regular basis. But when The Bachelor comes on, or (shudder) Grey’s Anatomy, I pull out my laptop and get to work.

    I freelance to replace my wife’s working salary so that she can stay home for her health and to look after our kids. It’s a lot of work, but I’m in no danger of burning out.

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable to earn $1,000 per month on the side. Deep down, if your financial livelihood depended on it, you could hit that target. My turn for assumptions: You have the luxury of working on “dream projects” like writing a book or creating a course because you don’t necessarily need the immediate income (these projects may pay off down the road, but likely would not return the time and effort that were put into them). If you had to focus on immediate income, you could easily earn $1,000 per month or more. You know you could.

  2. Potato Says:

    Hi Robb, some good points. As with many posts here it’s a lot of back-and-forth with myself on it and what is a reasonable expectation and trying to think out loud. (Indeed, once I started putting pencil to back-of-envelope I got that number down to a reasonable number of hours per week, so it should be feasible, it just made me pause and go “hmm…” when I read it).

    I will repeat something someone else said: you’re a machine.

    And you’re right on your last point — I diddle around a lot on projects that don’t return much if anything.

  3. John Ryan Says:

    Hey John, my reaction to this post is similar to Robb’s. Don’t sell yourself short rockstar! I’m confident you could get up to $1,000 side income, and I don’t think you’d need to hustle as hard as Robb makes it out to be.

    One big thing that jumped out at me. If you’re close to maxing out hours on a side-gig (and / or getting sick of it and thinking about cutting back), RAISE YOU RATES! That’s a SCREAMMMMIINNG sign you’re not charging enough.

    If it kills you to increase the rate on current customers, pledge to yourself that you’ll charge a higher rate to new customers. This will lower the demand for your service – no problem if you’re maxed out or wanting to cut back – and increase your resulting income.

    I’ve read about a handyman doing this – http://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-handyman-earned-14000-in-the-last-30-days-2015-04-03 – and there’s a story about a prostitute doing the same thing in the Freakanomics documentary.

    I’ve actually started another blog talking about graduate school, and one of the things I write about is job hunting approaching and after graduation. If you want to pass it along to the person wanting information, let her know I’d be happy to write some posts on whatever she’s interested in: http://www.ivorytowerunlocked.com/

  4. Potato Says:

    Thanks John!

    The interview is actually up now: http://www.universityaffairs.ca/career-advice/from-phd-to-life/transition-q-ajohn-robertson/

  5. John Ryan Says:

    Nice job on the interview! It’s no surprise to me that a grant writer is valued, I could see academics being very happy if they thought it had any chance of increasing their odds of getting a grant. My PhD supervisor was a very strong writer, and they’d get her to review all the department NSERC proposals before they went out.